Meet The Xenobot, The World's First 'Living Machine' Created Using Frog Cells And Artificial Intelligence

Meet The Xenobot, The World's First 'Living Machine' Created Using Frog Cells And Artificial Intelligence

What happens when cells from frog embryos are grown into new organisms that have been "evolved" by algorithms? You get what scientists are calling the world's first "living machine."

A group of scientists has now repurposed living cells extracted from frog embryos and assembled them into completely new life forms. These millimeter-wide "xenobots" can move toward a target, possibly pick up a payload (such as medicine that needs to be delivered to a particular spot inside a patient), and then heal themselves after being cut.

Scientists are still figuring out the fundamentals of xenobot life. The creatures can go for about ten days without food. When xenobots are fed sugar, they can live longer (though they do not grow). “We've grown them in the lab for over four months,” says study coauthor Doug Blackiston, also of Tufts. “If you grow them, they do really interesting things,” such as forming strange balloon-like shapes.

Xenobots, named after the frog species Xenopus laevis from which the cells are derived, were first described last year. The team behind the robots has now improved their design and demonstrated new capabilities.

Algorithms shaped the xenobots' evolution. UVM's supercomputer was used to design the new creatures, which were then assembled and tested by Tufts University biologists. "We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do," says co-leader Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts.

Scientists recently reported that these mobile organisms have no nerve cells or brains. Xenobots, which are about half a millimeter wide, can move independently and collectively. When placed in an arena littered with small particles of iron oxide, the xenobots can sweep the debris into piles. 

Xenobots can even heal themselves; after being cut, the bots zip themselves back into their spherical shapes and could potentially be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, transport medicine inside human bodies, and even scrape plaque from our arteries.

“They are neither a traditional robot nor a known animal species; in a statement, study co-author Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, said, “It is a new type of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Aside from these immediate practical tasks, the xenobots could help researchers learn more about cell biology, potentially leading to future human health and longevity advancements.

The finding was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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